SPRINGFIELD — Nearly a year after he appointed a veteran human services administrator to run Illinois' long-embattled child welfare agency, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner pulled a last-minute end run on the Senate to keep her on the job after the nomination ran into opposition.
Democratic lawmakers say they remain concerned about whether Beverly "BJ" Walker is moving quickly enough on proposed reforms at the Department of Children and Family Services and cited what they called a lack of transparency since she took the $150,000-a-year post.
Late last month, Senate Democrats told the governor that Walker didn't have enough support to win a confirmation vote. Rauner yanked Walker's paperwork, then nominated her again days later, a move that resets the clock and delays a potential showdown until well after the November election.
The political flap marks the latest controversy at an agency where stability has proved elusive for years amid highly publicized deaths of children in state care, management upheaval and scandal.
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It's against that backdrop that U.S. District Judge Jorge Alonso on Wednesday will consider the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois' request to appoint someone with decision-making authority to address data-sharing disputes in a nearly 30-year consent decree that sets out various required reforms. DCFS opposes such strict oversight, likely by a magistrate or retired judge, instead favoring a facilitator with child welfare experience who lacks enforcement power.
Rauner named Walker to lead DCFS in late June 2017 after the former director, George Sheldon, a child welfare expert from Florida, resigned amid an ethics probe into contracts that benefited some of his political associates. Sheldon was the agency's ninth director or acting director since 2011.
During her short time at the helm, Walker negotiated an agreement with DCFS' largest employee union that allowed her to fill vacant positions faster and reduce caseloads for overburdened child protection investigators. Agency officials say the improvements came despite rising calls to the state's child abuse hotline and subsequent investigations. Walker also dumped a widely panned analytics program that fell woefully short on its promise of predicting the probability of future harm to a child.
Walker defended the work she and her staff have undertaken, and said she is focusing on two of the most challenging at-risk groups in the system -- children under the age of 4 to ensure they find safe homes and don't grow up with the state as a parent, and older youths with severe mental health and behavioral problems.
"It will take time to turn around an agency that has been struggling for a number of years," Walker said in a statement to the Tribune. "We are working on many fronts to keep children safely with their families, to make sure every child in foster care is better off from our involvement, and to give our front-line staff more support and the tools to make the right decision every time for children and their families."
Even some of the agency's toughest critics are cautiously optimistic about her plan to transfer the most complex intact family cases from outside agencies back to DCFS caseworkers to be managed in-house.
That and other changes to improve case reviews for children whose families have multiple investigations are in direct response to the April 2017 death of 17-month-old Semaj Crosby of Joliet Township, who was found dead under a couch. There were multiple DCFS investigations into her home during a two-year period. Her death has been deemed a homicide by asphyxia.
Experts and lawmakers say vexing agency problems persist, from delays at the state's child abuse hotline to unreliable, untimely data and insufficient services and appropriate placements for DCFS youths. As a result, hundreds of youths languish in shelters, detention centers, psychiatric hospitals and other inappropriate settings.
The rules give the Senate 60 session days to act on the governor's appointments. But a light election-year schedule meant that even though the Rauner administration submitted Walker's paperwork last July 21, the deadline for a vote wasn't until late May.
Sen. Julie Morrison, a Deerfield Democrat who has worked on child welfare issues at the Capitol, said she could not endorse Walker for the job. Among Morrison's top concerns is whether DCFS is prepared for the planned rollout later this year of a Medicaid managed care system for the state's foster youths.
So as a confirmation hearing approached and fellow senators asked if they should vote for Walker, Morrison told them her reservations.
"I just haven't seen the leadership that I would have hoped she had," Morrison said. "While she has been accessible, I personally do not feel at this time she would warrant my vote for confirmation."
Sen. Antonio Munoz, a Chicago Democrat who heads the appointment panel, said in a statement to the Tribune that there were senators "who continue to have concerns regarding the director of DCFS who were not prepared to support the nominee at this time."
"That message was relayed to the governor's office," said John Patterson, spokesman for Democratic Senate President John Cullerton of Chicago.
The Rauner administration pulled the nomination May 25. Aides to the governor made a minor change — shortening the length of Walker's appointment by one day — and resubmitted it on May 28, Memorial Day. That meant the process started over, giving the Senate another 60 session days. There are only six session days scheduled for the rest of the year, putting the new deadline well into 2019. At that point, Rauner either will be re-elected or there will be a new governor who gets to select his own DCFS director.
For Walker, the DCFS job represents a return to state government. She grew up on the South Side and later raised and adopted a foster child while living in Chicago's Austin community. Walker has a long resume with decades of human services leadership. During the 1990s, she helped Republican Gov. Jim Edgar revamp social services in Illinois. She also worked for five years in Mayor Richard M. Daley's child services department.
From 2004 to 2011, Walker led Georgia's much larger state department for human services, which included child welfare. That state also had seen a revolving door of directors before her arrival. After a stint in the private sector, Walker agreed last summer to take over what many consider among the hardest jobs in state government.
Rauner, who pledged better agency leadership and ran attack ads regarding tragic child abuse deaths against then-Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn during the 2014 campaign, defended Walker's performance in a short time under difficult circumstances. Through a spokeswoman, Rauner noted his decision to pull a nomination in the Senate is not uncommon.
"Under her direction, DCFS has reduced caseloads by filling vacancies in front-line positions," Rauner spokeswoman Rachel Bold said. "She is working to modernize the agency's technology and is focused on implementing services that help ... youth (involved in the criminal justice system) change their behaviors and making sure all youth in care have access to quality health insurance coverage."
The administration could get some direction on another potential DCFS hurdle Wednesday, when it's back in court for a hearing on one of its consent decrees. Though agency administrators meet regularly with experts and attorneys connected to the federal case, the ACLU argues DCFS is flouting its obligation to provide timely, accurate information about various program initiatives and isn't working collaboratively with its counsel and court-appointed experts.
"We think there are significant failures on critically important initiatives," said Heidi Dalenberg, ACLU general counsel and co-counsel in the long-running federal class action suit. "We have spent a year of talking while children suffer. ...We're hoping this is kind of a reset button because all we have been doing is spinning our wheels."
Charles Golbert, the Cook County acting public guardian, supports the ACLU's request for an independent third party to ensure compliance of the consent decree. He, too, said progress "seems to have come to a standstill" about a year ago. He noted the instability of agency leadership has slowed change.
"It's not possible for an agency of (DCFS') size and complexity to make long-term systemic reform when there's not stable leadership at the top," Golbert said.